Saturday, January 14, 2006

Ahistory Lessons

Returning to the question of history:

Monday, December 8, was Franklin Roosevelt's day.

On the bridge leading to the Lincoln Memorial a single machine gun had been mounted. Outside the State Department and the White House were guards wearing tin hats. These little flourishes of the capital at war would have appeared pathetic to anybody who had lived more than a day with Europe's war or seen anything of the uneasy peace of the years that preceded it. But they were awesome signs to the ordinary American civilian that the debates of the Interventionists and the Isolationists had gone into history. For a decade before the war begin, even as late as the summer of 1940, it was the common experience to drive across the continent and never see a soldier. You had to go out of your way in Texas or Kansas and look at an old fort from the Indian wars to realize that the American people had had since 1865 no great cause to translate belligerent pride into the ubiquitous symbols (in their own country) of uniforms, chevrons, and campaign ribbons. The silence crowd at the Capitol, watching its breath smoke up the winter sunlight, was a curious as any other crowd to recognize arriving celebrities. But a European would remark how often people nudged their neighbors to watch a sentry go by. They watched the clockwork pacing of these few guards with a mild wonder, for it is a literal fact that few if any of them had ever seen a fixed bayonet. Seeing Americans stop to examine a soldier in drab Army overcoat and tin hat, it was not difficult to believe that when the German armies poured into Poland, the standing army of the United States was the size of the standing army of Sweden.
--Alistair Cooke, The American Home Front 1941-1942 (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006).

In the edition of Slaughterhouse Five I read in high school, Kurt Vonnegut mentioned in the preface that he'd learned in civics class that the great distinction of America was that, unlike European nations, it had no standing army. That struck me, a child of the Cold War, as an amazing fact.

It's hard to read this passage from Alastair Cooke's forthcoming book, and not read the entire history of America in the 20th century, down to the present moment, in it. Or to realize the dangers of not learning from history.

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